Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Primary Task Of An Ethical System?

It quite often seems to me most of the world's popular ethical systems share a common assumption: Namely, that the primary task of an ethical system is to constrain human evil. I would suggest, however, that the primary task of an ethical system should not be to constrain human evil, but to promote human good.

Some years ago the executives at a large American corporation noticed that a vice-president in one of their subsidiaries was long overdue for a promotion. Wondering why that was so, they sent a friend of mine to investigate. After looking into the matter, my friend reported back to his fellow executives: "Charlie has an excellent track record of saving our subsidiary money, but he has done nothing in his career to make us money. He conserves wealth, but he does not create it." Everyone then understood why Charlie had not been promoted.

Ethical systems that are primarily concerned with constraining human evil are a bit like Charlie: They are focused on the negative, rather than on the positive. No matter how much they save us from evil, they do little or nothing to increase human good.

3 comments:

amuirin said...

This was kind of my father's problem with a fundamental church we tried out. He said they tried to keep their congregation (and their congregation's donations) by preaching fire and brimstone; a policy of fear.

Government and media now seem to implement these tactics in our country to control the populous. I guess fear is the stand-in when you don't have the skill/wisdom to actually guide or govern.

laurie said...

I am curious...is the parallel to the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) intentional Phil?

Paul said...

That's an interesting parallel, Laurie, but I'm sorry to say it didn't occur to me until you pointed it out. Thanks for that insight!

Good point, Amuirin! To play on people's fears is a classic tactic of politicians and pundits, but it does little to encourage people to develop their potential. Like you, I see it as a mark of incompetence in leadership.